EPA offers business intell software as internal service

An office of the Environmental Protection Agency has set up a service that offers business intelligence software for other EPA offices on a fee-per-user basis.

"We provide…business intelligence tools [and] analytics tools on a software-as-a-service model, as if we were a contractor. [Users] don't have to install anything," said Timothy Hinds, who is the program manager for the EPA Business Intelligence and Analytics Center. Hinds outlined the center's operations during a session at the Independent Oracle Users Group (IOUG) annual conference.

On a subscriber basis, EPA offices can use Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition, as well as Business Objects XI, Informatica PowerCenter, SAS to prepare their reports. Reports can be generated as PDFs or Web pages. In addition to offering the software, the center also offers training, consulting and help desk support.

Overall, this service-oriented approach should save the agency money in software licensing and support costs, Hinds said. The agency started a working capital fund that got the center up and running, though now it is funded by user fees.

"We buy [the software] on a CPU basis and sell it out to the agency on the basis of named users or concurrent users," he said. The software is purchased according to the number of processors it runs on, so it doesn't matter how many individuals use the software. "For us it doesn't matter how many users are on the CPU, as long as the CPU can handle the load."

Periodically, the center analyzes its costs of purchasing the software against the fees it gets from its users. The costs it charges users are then recalculated annually.

In general, business intelligence is the act of adding a "semantic translation layer to data," Hinds said. Raw database tables, with often inscrutable column names, can be re-rendered and recompiled into business terms that can be understood by managers and anyone else other than the administrators who run these database systems.

The backbone of the operation is the Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition, which is deployed on IBM HS20 blade servers running on Microsoft Windows 2003.

The architecture consists of a shared environment with development servers that users can log in to and prepare their data. Also in the mix are sets of staging servers and production servers, which only the center itself has access to. The center also runs a public-access proxy server, for those reports that are issued for public access.

"We're very big on separation of duties," Hinds said. "Customers do not get to update stuff on the production servers. We do that for them."

Overall, business intelligence software works well within a shared-service architecture. The center ran into one glitch, however, with the Oracle BI software.

"I think it is very easy to use and very powerful, and scales well to the enterprise," Hinds said. The downside, however, is that "It doesn't scale very well to the shared model of software-as-a-service."

"The product can be used for that, but it has several weaknesses," Hinds added.

When run under Microsoft Windows, the Oracle BI software can access only a single repository under Windows environments, so the center had to place all the user in a single Rapid Database (RPD) file. And with this Oracle application, all user accounts come with full administrative rights for the software, Hinds said.

While these expansive privileges may be fine for stand-alone BI projects, they are problematic in a shared-service environment. A user from one project using this software could potentially see all the material in other projects, which gives the agency huge potential risks in security, privacy and data leakage.

To resolve this problem, the center set up their workflow so that when users wish to modify a RPD, the center prepares a stripped-down version of the file for them to use, using the material only from their project. When they are finished making their changes, the center merges the modified file back into the master RPD. "This is a manual process for us," Hinds said.

More information about the center can be accessed by EPA employees on the EPA intranet, by going here.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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